Reviews

Cassavetes, The Mob and Realism: 'The Killing of a Chinese Bookie'

One of John Cassavetes' most accessible films, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie offers a unique, noirish and naturalistic take on the sleazy criminal milieu based around Sunset Strip.


The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

Director: John Cassavetes
Cast: Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Timothy Agoglia Carey, Morgan Woodward
Distributor: BFI
UK Release date: 2013-07-15
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Of all the key figures involved in American independent cinema over the last 50 years or so, the late John Cassavetes was certainly one of the most interesting and enigmatic. When he wasn’t creating seminal, free-form abstract work that defined an entire genre, he seemed content to use his brooding good looks to secure acting gigs in a variety of films, encompassing glossy, big budget mainstream outings such as Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), right through to low budget exploitation movies such as 1982’s Incubus, a gloriously tacky and enjoyable horror film that Cassavetes nevertheless appears to have taken fairly seriously, as was his wont. (Unhappy with the screenplay for Incubus, Cassavetes re-wrote large parts of it on-set, demonstrating that a committed and passionate writer/director can never properly switch off).

No doubt the prime motivation for Cassavetes’ participation in such films was money, and if those salaries bought him some time and artistic freedom, and helped bankroll mini-masterpieces like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, then all the better. Despite the film's art-house credentials, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is perhaps Cassavetes’ most well-known and conventional work, and it seems incomprehensible that it was panned upon its initial release, before a hasty re-edit by the director addressed its perceived deficiencies.

This beautiful Limited Edition 3-Disc Dual Format DVD/Blu-ray set from the BFI features the film’s two incarnations: the original 134-minute version, and Cassavetes’ shorter 109-minute edit that was assembled in 1978 (the latter version is the focus of this review). Additionally, there is a bonus disc containing the documentary Anything for John (1993), the short film Haircut (1982), and an interview with Tamar Hoffs, director of The Haircut. The handsome package is rounded off with selected commentaries and interviews, and a comprehensive illustrated booklet. (The film is also available in a standard 2-disc set, containing everything except the extra bonus films).

Shot in 1976, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie stars Ben Gazzara as Cosmo Vittelli, the proud owner of the Crazy Horse West nightclub on Sunset Strip. Surrounded by a seedy nocturnal world of petty criminality, things turn serious when Vittelli, after losing heavily at the gambling table, finds himself owing $23,000 to local gangsters. Unable to pay, he is coerced into carrying out an underworld hit for them, in order to erase his large debt. However, whilst Vittelli believes the proposed victim is insignificant – the titular Chinese bookie – the target is actually an elderly and powerful Triad boss. If the hit goes ahead as planned, it could instigate disastrous retribution against the hapless Vittelli.

A classic, noirish study of the lethal combination of masculine pride and arrogant self-destruction, the film’s subtle and very naturalistic tone is similar to Mean Streets, Martin Scorsese’s excellent examination of Catholic guilt and the fallibility of criminals. This similarity is no coincidence, either: Scorsese and Cassavetes had together formulated a treatment for The Killing of a Chinese Bookie several years previously, during an editing session on Scorsese’s film, and indeed Cassavetes even claimed to have completed the script for The Killing of a Chinese Bookie with the sole intention of handing it over to Scorsese to direct.

Interestingly, both The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Mean Streets are a long way from the terrific, elaborate and expensive crime films that Scorsese would come to direct twenty years or so later. By then, Scorsese was more interested in deconstructing the glamour, mythology and iconography of famous and wealthy Mafia figures, rather than realism and the seamier, low-key experiences of small-time gangsters at street level.

As his situation worsens, we genuinely feel for Vittelli. His coterie of dancing girls from the club represents a kind of surrogate family to him, and the way he clings to them for emotional stability is quite endearing. Moreover, whilst it's difficult to truly warm to him due to his social pretensions, his arrogant chutzpah and his gambling problem, his primary motivation is nevertheless borne of a simple need to survive and succeed, unlike the avaricious, wealthy and ruthless criminals that circle him like dead-eyed sharks, always on the scam.

Vittelli is above all else a realist, acutely aware that he must play the game with all manner of undesirables in order to keep his club, and his head, above water, and it's these conflictual, strained relationships that give the film its tension and power. (Take a close look at the excellent scenes between Vittelli and the mobsters: the veneer of affability between the two masks a great and unspoken contempt, and even when there is little dialogue between them, their facial expressions and body language say it all. These moments are terrific, and are great examples of subtle physical performance).

Vittelli’s misfortune reaches its zenith during the violent third act, and continues to the end, which is left ambiguous. Despite his proud attachment to the club as a “straight” venture, the criminality that gradually consumes him is unavoidable, and it's realistically portrayed as unfruitful, painful, unglamorous, and above all, un-Hollywood -- just like most of Cassavetes’ unconventional work. Despite coveting legitimacy, Vittelli’s lack of control forces him into situations that are just as grubby and unpleasant as the seediest aspects of the Los Angelean underworld Cassavetes has captured so vividly. Whilst we can’t condone Vittelli’s actions or misjudgement, we can still sympathise with his predicament.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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